Friday, September 19, 2014

Surrender the Booty!

Shortly after Gen Con and my last post, I kind of hit a point of physical and mental fatigue.  Progress on most projects stopped.  In fact, just about the only thing I managed to accomplish in the last month is some work on Pirates of Tortuga, my new weekly campaign.  In the last few days, I have started to come out of that malaise with a desire to get back to things.  First the blog here, and then perhaps more ambitious projects.

As Friday, September 19th is Talk Like a Pirate Day, and since my current weekly game is also pirate based, it seems only natural to cover that topic.  I collected a number of pirate themed game materials over the years.  Some of them were excellent.  Below are five of the most useful I have found.  Since my current campaign is historically based, I am limiting myself to games set in our own past.  Green Ronin's Freeport, Frog God Games' Razor Coast, and of course my old favorite Alderac Entertainment Group's 7th Sea are all excellent games with pirate themes set elsewhere,  If you need a little more fantasy in your pirate games, I urge you to look to them.  For gaming on the Spanish Main, I present these gems:

GURPS Swashbucklers

This book went through three editions.  This is not
 the last, but it is by far the best cover.
For gamers who cut their teeth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, GURPS sourcebooks were the best place to go to get information about any genre,  Even if you did not like the GURPS system, their books were packed with setting details you could use.  GURPS authors did their research and the content was of superior quality even if their production values were somewhat austere.  One of the best of these sourcebooks was GURPS Swashbucklers by Steffan O'Sullivan.  As the name would suggest, it covers both pirate campaigns and continental European adventuring in the style of The Three Musketeers.  The main entries all contain solid coverage of the main themes of a swashbuckling campaign.  The real gems, as is the case in most of the best GURPS supplements, are the sidebars.  These small one or two paragraph treatments of the esoterica in the genre are where an enterprising GM can find details to make his game really sing.  Likewise, the details in the sidebars are just the right hooks to hang a character concept on.  I do not run many GURPS games any more, but my shelf of GURPS material still gets used in just about whatever game I am running and Swashbucklers shows exactly why.

Campaign Classics: Pirates

How dangerous can he be wearing
pantaloons like that?
Written in 1990 for a game system that nobody I know ever played (or at least talked about playing), Pirates a supplement for Rolemaster/Hero System still merits a mention nearly 25 years later.  This is largely for the same reason I mentioned GURPS Swashbicklers above: it is so full of useful campaign material that it doesn't matter whether you use the system or not.  Pirates is a far more focused sourcebook than its GURPS counterpart.  As a result, it delves deeper into the world of pirates.  The real strengths of the book are twofold.  First is the amount of information it gives about the various locations in the Caribbean.  Later pirate games do this, but no one does it quite as well.  Each entry about an island or town is just a paragraph or two (Except for major locations like Port Royal and Tortuga which are necessarily longer), yet gives a good feel for how to make that location different from the others.  The second strength is the maps. Using a combination of historical maps and more modern cartography, Pirates has the best and most comprehensive maps of any pirate genre role-playing supplement ever.

Skull & Bones

 Skull & Bones  is my favorite of the more modern pirate based games.  A d20 supplement, Skull & Bones adds elements of horror and supernatural to the Spanish Main.  This has some intriguing implications since the work introduces the concept that both voodoo traditions and Christian relics can have power in the Caribbean.  As a student of history, I tend to prefer historical campaigns that do not incorporate the mystical, but I do appreciate what the authors are trying to convey.  Where I find Skull & Bones most useful, however, is in its organization.  Gaming material has undergone a lot of changes since the first two entries were produced, and not always for the better.  One of the real leaps forward between the old school and more modern efforts is in the presentation of material.  Skull & Bones adds considerable new information to the genre, but it really shines at presenting the material in such a way that the game player can easily access it.  A thorough table of contents, index, and logical presentation of material may not seem like that big a deal, but every GM who has ever spent time at the table thumbing through a rule book looking for some obscure rule or table can attest to how useful these things can be.

The Pirate GM's Right Fist

Not as fancy as the other entries, but just as

If you want to run a pirate game, but you are cheap, then have I got a deal for you.  At a paltry $1.99, The Pirate GM's Righ Fist is just the ticket.  Black Shark Enterprises is a new, independent producer of (thusfar) exclusively generic pirate based gaming materials.  Right Fist was their first entry on DrivethruRPG.  Fourteen pages of tables and a short essay that are worth every penny.  Designed for the GM who is either running a game on the fly or just needs a little inspiration between sessions, the tables cover most of the things that GM could need fast.  Quick random encounters on land and at sea.  What is that merchant ship carrying?  Need a ship name fast?  Where is that ship headed?  Roll some dice and there is the info right at your fingertips.  In general, I am not a fan of the whole random table for a dollar part of the field.  The amount of thought that went into these tables, however, is enough to change that opinion.  Also, the number of interesting details about pirate life that Mark S. Cookman, the author squeezes into the two pages at the end of the supplement make this one of the most useful pirate supplements to be had at any price.  He has advertised a product for ship to ship combat to be released later this year.  I anxiously anticipate it.

 Buccaneers & Bokor, Issue One

Did I mention it is free?
If $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, how does free grab you?  Buccaneers & Bokor was a short lived emagazine in support of Skull & Bones.  They are all still available on DrivethruRPG cheaply.  Each of the issues was worthy of mention and has information useful to the pirate GM.  The first issue, however, has two things going for it that the others do not.  First, it is free.  It is hard to beat free.  Second, it contains a set of tables for random adventure generation that are hard to beat.  Gareth-Michael Skarka has created a system of table that he has adapted in various Adamant Entertainment products across genres.  At their base, they emulate a screenwriters pitch (and frankly Mad Libs) where the tables insert random elements into the following sentence: "The main characters must [DO] [SOMETHING]  at [LOCATION] but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION]." The sentences when filled in can usually make an interesting plot.  Even without using the sentence structure, looking over the table of random words can get ideas flowing.  It helps that some of his words are not always typical for the genre.  Used this way, they are a bit of a word association brainstorming exercise.  The rest of the issue is worthwhile as well, with a glossary of pirate lingo, a brief adventure, and a mythical pirate island all rounding out the offering.

These are some of the most useful items in my treasure chest.  Got any treasures I missed?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ten Things I Took from Gencon 2014

There was a brief, unannounced hiatus from the blog while I took a week off to attend Gen Con. Last year I posted a note like this on Facebook. I found the notes a useful reference point when planning for this year. It is my hope that these notes will help for future years.

Ten Things I Took from Gencon 2014: 

1. Hotel registration was worse than ever this year. Event registration was marginally better, but only because i didn't try to register until two weeks after it opened. Gen Con seems to pay a lot of lip service to improving these services without ever doing anything that makes them any better. I guess as long as they having increases in attendance every year, they will not do much to change things. The on-site situation, however, was much better. Lines were long at Will Call and in other places, but seemed to move at a much quicker pace. The expansion of the dealer hall also really relived the congestion in the aisles. Even the Saturday crush was better despite the increase in attendance this year. Good job on that. Now just make it so that I can get a room without having a stroke every year. 

2. There are two restaurants in the Mariott. Champions is the one that everyone frequents. I find this puzzling as my two efforts to eat there were filled with microwaved food and at least one attempt to give a friend e. coli. Circle City Bar and Grille on the other hand is delightful. It never seems to be crowded, has always had good food, and tailors the menu to the gamers in attendance. It is sort of like the Ram, only with far better fare and less waiting to be seated. 

3. Gamestation had no booth this year. Their presence at Gen Con has been gradually shrinking for several years. Curiously their website is down as well. I hate to see that. I do not much like their precision dice, but I have always wanted the WKU grads in the gaming business to succeed. 

4. The dealer hall was bigger than ever! The added aisles were very welcome and not just for the eased congestion. The number of small vendors selling cool things was impressive. I purchased several products from the little guys this year. I wonder how many of them would not have even gotten space in the hall without the expansion.
5. Last year I declared Paizo/Pathfinder to be the new kings of the Role-playing world. This year they provided evidence that they might not be benevolent dictators. Roping off your entire booth and then making people line up outside the dealer hall for a chance to get in was a complete dick move. Certainly that probably helped with the congestion situation, but those folks standing in line did not get to see anything but a hallway until they got to go to the Paizo booth. That is certainly not the way I want to spend my vacation. 

6. D&D NEXT/5e/V, whatever you want to call it seems to have gleaned some positive buzz. Everyone I came in contact with who encountered it seems to have at least something good to say about it. I cannot tell if that is because people actually like it, or they are just happy that fourth edition is now mercifully put out to pasture. 

7. I heartily recommend finding something to do outside the convention area a couple of times per convention. This year I went on Thursday night to the theater at the Circle Center Mall to see Guardians of the Galaxy (Excellent!). On Friday, I took the six block walk with friends to eat at Shapiro's Deli (also Excellent). These departures from the convention craziness were very welcome. Too much noise and too many people lead to gamer crud and sensory overload. 

8. Food trucks continue to be really spotty. On Wednesday night, I got an excellent Crawfish Po Boy from one truck. On Saturday, my friends waited for 30 minutes or so to place their order and then nearly an hour to get tepid, mediocre food. Aren't food trucks supposed to be fast and convenient? That seems like neither.

9. The Con Bag was a definite upgrade, and a good way for many con-goers to haul their stuff around. I filled mine up with purchases for the ride home. A book bag with a strap is certainly less likely to clog up the trashcans than the plastic jobs they have given out in past years. The coupon book, however, has gotten as dire as the swag did back in the day. There is no coupon to the coupons. Does anyone actually use any of the coupons other than the Crystal Caste free die? 

10. I got to play in a number of RPG sessions this year. Even with one cancellation, I managed to play three sessions of 7th Sea and a game of Desolation with one of the designers. Since I never get to play those games, i was more than happy to paritcipate in each of those sessions.I noticed, however, a couple of problems. First, in two of the four sessions hand waved the final encounter. I paid good money to beat up the bad guys, not have the GM say: "You beat up the bad guys!" Also, I noted a marked amount of house rules going on. That is not a problem per se, but a GM needs to realize that a house rule, even one they have used for years, is likely not going to be familiar to the players coming to a convention game table. I do not need to play the game "as written" necessarily, but if you change something it is on you to realize that it is different than the rules as written, not me. 

The housing debacle and the stressors involved in convention planning made me declare more than once that this would quite possibly be my last Gen Con. It is easy to forget how much fun the con can be once you get there. Then you forget how much of a pain it is to get registered for the con when you start making plans for the next year. I enjoy Gen Con a lot, and this year was a good year indeed. i will have to keep my mind on that when I am pulling my hair out next year while securing a room.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

RPGaDAY Part 2

Yeah.  This is small.  Click it if you actually want to read it.
5) Most Old School RPG Owned.

Unfortunately, I no longer have my Red/Blue Box stuff.  It was lost in my move back from Louisiana.  I still have the AD&D Player's Guide from middle school, though.  It sits on my shelf held together by masking tape and a promise not to touch it any more.  Still, the MOST old School thing I own is something I picked up about fifteen years ago in a bundle of stuff given to me by an old college buddy.  It is the first edition of a (seemingly) unauthorized D&D module from Iron Crown Enterprises from 1980 entitled The Iron Wind.  It truly is Old School, complete with amateur production values, an incomprehensible faux handwriting font, and nothing resembling a plot.  On a positive note, it does have a couple of cool maps.  Also, it seems to have been popular in some circles as it got two reprints over the years.  It is a good reminder, if nothing else, of how far the hobby has come in the last 35 years.   

6) Favorite RPG Never Get to Play

This one is actually pretty tough.  If I include games that I have never gotten to play as a player, but have GM'd, then the list can get long, fast.  I have never gotten to play Legend of the Five Rings, GURPS Autoduel, Dark Consporacy, Dragonfist, Freeport, Atomic Highway...  Of those, I am going to go with Legend of the Five Rings though.  Not just because I have never gotten to play as a player, but also because my gaming group has gradually changed into a group of people that do not seen to be interested in that genre at all.  The chances of getting to play it any time soon seem remote.  I cannot even get a decent Gen Con game because they do not play the first edition, which is the one I like the best. 

7) Most Intellectual RPG Owned

By most standards, most of the hobby would be considered intellectual.  I suppose within the hobby, however, some games tackle more complex issues than others.  Certainly Savage Worlds treads less philosophical ground than say Dogs in the Vinyard.  I think my answer here, however, is going to be GURPS Vehicles.  Any game system for vehicle creation that requires the use of a scientific calculator is probably not only intellectual, but also too intellectual for me.

8) Favorite Character

While the last two were pretty tough, this one is remarkably easy.  I have been the GM for much of my gaming tenure.  As a result, I do not have a ton of PCs to choose from.  In the last few years, I have had several memorable characters:  "Wild" Bill Breckenridge in the GURPS Crimson Sky game, Phil Stonefist from Savage Star Frontiers, and my current Owen Sparks in the SW/Bookhounds of London game.  None of those characters, however, can hold a candle to my old Top Secret/James Bond RPG character Bill Phillips.  Phillips is part spy, part psychopath.  He has the subtlety of the aluminum baseball bat he carries and regularly uses to beat the stuffing out of all who cross him.  Prone to big guns, highly dubious modes of transportation, and hard living, Phillips was my college power fantasy lovingly allowed to wreck his surroundings by a permissive GM.  I would likely hate to have Bill as a PC in a game I ran, but he was a hell of a lot of fun to play.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

RPGaDay Compilation part 1

I would make this larger, but the next bigger size totally messes with
the sidebar.  Click to embiggen.

In the game blogging world, this is a bit of a thing.  I like the occasional project like this, but I do not think it is worth the trouble of 31 days of blogs. In order to participate, but not drag it out to a daily exercise, I am going to use posts to cover several entries at a time.  I am already a few days behind, so I guess I should get started!

1) First RPG Played.
I know how excited I was to see this on my birthday.  I
suspect my grandmother had a very different reaction.
 August 24, 1980.  Red box Dungeons and Dragons.  Given to me my my mother on my 12th birthday.  "Played" my first game that day.  It was a bit of a disaster, but of the best variety.  The kind where you can tell something amazing is there, you just do not quite understand what is happening at the time.  I have been trying to wrangle that amazing thing for 30+ years now.

2) First RPG Game Mastered.
I opened the box, drew my first dungeon on the blank map in the book and ran my first game the same afternoon.  My first two players were my seven year old sister and my seventy year old very Baptist grandmother.  They rolled up first level characters and ran into the THREE Medusas I had populated the first room with.  It went about as well as that sounds.

3) First RPG Purchased.
The basic set was good for several months.  At Christmas time, my aunt got me a second copy of the basic set for Christmas which I promptly took and exchanged for an Expert Set.  I was only dimly aware that there was such a thing as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons for a LONG time.  When a guy at my middle school showed up one day with a copy of the Player's Manual, I knew I had to get one.  When he offered to sell me his (well actually his brother's which might be why he was so willing to sell it) for $10,  I jumped at the chance.  That sucker retailed for $15.  In early 1980s money!

4) Most Recent RPG Purchase
I bought a couple of .pdf name generators on DrivethruRPG last week. Those do not really represent much about anything in my current hobby life other than the readily accessible way that online purchases can separate me from my money.  So rather devoting any time to thinking about them, let us look at my last physical purchase.  I just got a copy of Pirates of the Spanish Main RPG through an eBay auction last week.  This is fortuitous because my newly reconstituted mid week game group is going to be starting a Pirate game after Gen Con.  Spanish Main uses the Savage Worlds rules, a favorite of mine.  Our game will be real world bases, though, so we will have to strip out all the references to ghost ships etc.  What remains looks like a good foundation for what I hope to run.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Defining the gamer

I had dinner last night with my best friend.  He is a relatively new gamer, one I brought into the fold. Earlier in the day I had made an indirect criticism of how he named his characters and how it diminished my suspension of disbelief in the games we played together.  I could tell he took the comment to heart when he made an analogy about his time as a football player.

He stated that he understood that his level of commitment to the gaming hobby was not at the same level as mine and others he knew.  His level of commitment made him less of a gamer than others who devoted more time and energy to the hobby.  It was like when he played high school football.  It bothered him at the time when others would say "I am a football player," but what they meant was that sometimes they played catch with their dad or friends on the weekend.  They weren't football players, HE was a football player.

I get where he is coming from there.  Indeed, I have been guilty of this kind of thinking often in my own life and hobbies.  Looking at the situation as he presented it last night, I see the huge flaw in that argument.  Where does that elite sort of thinking end?  Does a college football player get to tell my friend that what he was doing wasn't football because it was only at the high school level?  Does an NFL pro get to disqualify the college player from the ranks of football players because he plays on Saturdays instead of Sundays?  Does a player with a Super Bowl ring get to tell the bench warmer on a last place team that he is not a football player?

The answer, for me at least, is no.  Those guys playing football in their backyard are playing, and enjoying, football.  

The same goes for my friend being a gamer.  Certainly, I will continue to discourage him from naming his characters so flippantly.  But I think the definition of a gamer is: someone who enjoys gaming.  That means the guys who make games for a living.  It also means the game masters who belly up to the table every session and have their beautiful plots and schemes ripped apart by callous players.  It also, also means the players who get together every week, month, once in a blue moon to roll some dice/flip some cards/do rock, paper, scissors to resolve conflicts.  It also, also, ALSO means that poor soul who has dice and cannot find a group.

The only real definition is this: If you want to game, you are a gamer.  

The less time we spend worrying about the definitions, the more time we get to spend gaming.